Delivered at Ames UCC on Sunday, June 30, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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I’m going to reference some photos that include children that are pretty graphic, so parents and guardians, if you feel like your little ones aren’t ready to hear about that, feel free to move into the parlor.
I think you know one of the photos I will describe. In it, there is a man face down in a river. Strapped to his back with a cloth is a child, maybe a toddler, also face down. The child’s left hand sticks out of the carrier as if it had been wrapped around the man’s neck.
On first seeing the photo all I could think was, “Yank them up! Someone yank them up! They can’t survive with their faces in the water!” But it was too late. Nothing could be done to save them. They are dead. They are drowned dead from their effort to flee a hell of a homeland and to ask this great nation, this wealthy and vast nation, for asylum.
Instead, they received lungs filled with water and final moments filled with terror. The ruach, the breath of God that flows in all of us right now, of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Valeria, has been washed away.
Take the grief, shock, anger, horror, and even numbness that you experienced in first seeing that photo, and in remembering it now, and multiply it by many thousands. That is the beginning of understanding the tenor and content of the book of Lamentations.
Over 500 years before Jesus, the ancient Hebrew nation of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian empire. Judah’s temple in Jerusalem was razed, lives ended, and people deported. Lamentations is a poetic description of and response to that time.
Lamentations—like the media today with that photo, and the media with the photo of the child burning with Napalm during the Vietnam war, and the photo of the vulture waiting for a child to die of starvation in the Sudan, and the photo of the young Syrian child whose body washed up on shore after trying to flee his hellish homeland—Lamentations does not flinch in its description of suffering, including the suffering of children:
“Babes as for bread—none offers it to them.” (4.4)
There is no food for children.
“My bile spilled out on the ground . . . when the babe and the sucking grew faint . . .” (2.11)
I threw up when the baby started to die.
“Should women eat their fruit, the dangled babes?” (2.20)
Are things so bad that our women will have only their children to eat?
To stress the completeness of that brutality and bloodshed, the author or authors of Lamentations organized this testimony in the highly rigorous form of an acrostic: In four of the five poems, each verse begins with a letter of the Biblical Hebrew alphabet and then follows the order of the alphabet. It is a book of all possible forms for grief and pain from Aleph to Taw. If it were in English, from A to Z.
But with that alphabet the authors also offer an answer to the question that Ben posed in his song: Why did they have to go to the gates of death? Their answer: God.
In Lamentations, God is the reason for Judah’s destruction:
God wasted by flesh and my skin.
God shattered my bones.
God built up against me,
encompassed me with misery and suffering (3.4–5).
And as we heard today,
(T)he Lord has stricken her (the city) with sorrow
because of all of her trespasses. (1.5)
In the reasoning, the theology, of Lamentations, the downfall of the people is a punishment from God. Because the people of Judah failed to uphold the teachings of God and covenant with God and between each other, God sent the Babylonians to enact punishment. And yet we hear in the latter portion of today’s reading that God is faithful and good.
How can the poet say that? How can the poet say anything good about God if they also believe that God is the reason for their abolition? More importantly, how can we say anything good about a God that does not reverse waters and wars and famine to save small children?
Remember that last week when we looked at Ecclesiastes, the famous section that describes how there is a time for everything, I said that the line about a “time for peace, the time for war” is not proscriptive but descriptive. Ecclesiastes was not writing about what should be but simply what is.
Though it is antithetical to creation, we continue to practice war. No matter how “advanced” our civilizations may become, we cannot seem to set down the AK-47s or the lie of national borders. It is in our nature, we tell ourselves, the story of Cain and Abel tells us, to turn violently against each other.
God is the dream of another way. God is the guide to another way. God is the means to another way. As today’s poet wrote
Good is the Lord for those who look to God,
for the person who seeks God out. (3.25)
If we want to stop seeing those photos, if we want our name and our money to stop being used to incite war—actual, economic, or political—we have to seek God out now, now while we still breathe easily.
That searching, called prayer, is simply the continuation of the conversation with the fabric of the universe that began when we were knit in our parent’s womb.
But it can’t just be on Sunday morning; this one hour each week is not nearly enough. We have to go turn off the TV and the app alerts to go to God on our own in quiet, leaving room for our souls to offer up and to receive. We must consent to a daily time for God or else we will only ever know how to consent to war, water, and famine.
Reversing the course we are on will not only take massive policy and infrastructure changes, it will require imaginations touched by the holiness that loves babies set adrift in reed bowls and babies born in crummy mangers. It will require the sacred strength that comes from knowing that love is worth living all the way to death and beyond.
Though we are not personally experiencing the degree of devastation described in Lamentations, our political and ecological climate could land us there very soon. And others like Oscar and Valeria are landing among us now, dead and alive, who can attest to that gruesome terrain.
And unlike Lamentations, we do not blame God. Their deaths and so many others are an all-too-human abomination.
Yet when our prayer becomes as regular as the ruach, the breath of God that sustains all life, we will have that confidence of the poets that
The Lord’s kindness has not ended,
for God’s mercies are not exhausted.
They are renewed every morning.
Great is (God’s) faithfulness. (3.22–24)
And so great can be our kindness, and great can be our mercy, and great can be our faith in each other.